How many times have you wished you hadn’t initiated something that ended in failure? Or bought something only to discover that it was unnecessary or useless—but that you’d kept too long to return? Or taken precious time to learn something that turned out to be of no practical value to you?
Sound familiar? Of course. For at one time or another all of us have made false predictions about whether performing a task or undertaking a project would be gratifying or worthwhile. Or whether purchasing something might make us happier—or at least make good, rational sense. (Perhaps an item so discounted that it was simply too cheap to pass up?) And doubtless, we’ve all had the experience of investing time in learning a skill, enrolling in a course, or embarking on some challenging program that never came anywhere close to rewarding our efforts.
But then, in the exclamatory words of Benjamin Franklin: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained!!!"
Or even, as the great (pessimistic) Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard concluded: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
And lastly, one of my very favorite expressions (attributed to nobody in particular): "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
The key point here is that waste is hardly limited to the various things you routinely dump in your trash bin. It’s a by-product of, well, just about everything. And (to expand on Kierkegaard’s assertion) the waste I’m referring to can’t be predicted: it’s simply one of the many “unknowns” we all have to deal with. So, if you’re single-mindedly determined to eliminate all wastefulness in your life—whether that relates to your time, energy, or finances—you’ll literally need to become an avoidance expert. And, over time, such hyper-prudence virtually guarantees the most self-defeating of outcomes.
Frankly, how many of us would actually covet the title “Master of Avoidance”—attempting to escape disappointment or failure through a premeditated course of inaction? After all, the more you’re willing to take manageable risks to find out what’s possible, or what might work best for you, the more likely your life will be positively challenging and gratifying, happy and fulfilling. And despite whatever “disposable waste” gets produced along the way.
As already suggested, the inevitable downside of taking action—almost all action—is that frequently you just can’t know in advance whether a relationship, endeavor, purchase or investment will end up benefiting you. But what if this is simply the “game of life”—predictiveness certainty being an unattainable ideal? Would you choose to sit life out? Whether or not you’re conscious of it, the world has a way of hitting us with unforeseen (or unforeseeable) circumstances. And collectively, these uncontrollable contingencies play a major role in how things turn out.
Nonetheless, if you’re to move forward in life, you have little choice but to accept the unavoidable risks most behaviors embody. If you don’t, you’ll probably regret the missed opportunities that came from having decided to "play it safe." Even if you end up wasting your time pursuing something that finally doesn’t pan out, it’s still generally better than holding yourself back and refusing to act under conditions of uncertainty.
Life teems with confusion and ambiguity. So without warning your expectations may be defeated, you might fall ill, lose your job—or any of the almost infinite misfortunes we’re all subject to. Regardless of how careful or cautious your actions may be, your ability to protect yourself from (unanticipated) adversity is limited.
In addition, your priorities and goals may change, and in ways you couldn’t have prepared for. Or your needs and desires may shift beyond anything you could have imagined. Your tastes and preferences, too—from foods you choose to eat, to relationships you find meaningful, to projects that excite you—are all vulnerable to change. As are even the ideals that, till now, you may have determined to live by. And sometimes when you get what you want (or thought you wanted), you find out that, no, that wasn’t it at all. So finally, much of what you put your time, effort, and money into may wind up feeling like a “waste.” It’s pretty much inevitable.
That’s what reviewing your past actions can do to you but, it should be added, for you as well. For undertaking such a reexamination of past decisions, questioning and confronting your original rationales and justifications, can sharpen your present-day judgment, assisting you in making better—because much more informed—choices going forward.
In so many ways experience is our best teacher. So if you’re gun-shy—attempting through inaction to protect yourself from the presumed “waste” of a false start or failure—such a life stance will inevitably undermine your chances of future success. Consider the wisdom in each of these three related quotes:
There is no such thing as failure, only partial success! ~ Suzanne Yoculan
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. ~ Paulo Coelho
“Failure should be our teacher. . . . [It] is delay, not defeat. [It] is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. ~ Dennis Waitley
In such a paradoxical context it should be axiomatic that you need to risk wasting time, energy, and money if, eventually, you’re to make your life as richly meaningful and rewarding as, potentially, it can be. And, in that sense, rarely is anything you do a complete waste. If you make the effort to explore everything you’ve executed as having been an opportunity to learn more about yourself and the world you live in, hasn’t every failed pursuit taught you something? improved your judgment? refined your understanding? enabled you to perceive things more accurately—so your future actions could hit the mark . . . or at least come ever closer to it than before?
Hopefully, if you can grasp what’s been described above, you’ll be more apt to “go for it.” And reflecting on your past errant behaviors can be used as an invaluable form of self-coaching or -mentoring. What can't be learned from reading or attending lectures is precisely what you can learn through scrupulous analysis of past experience. And because life is so full of uncertainties and unknowns, it’s always prudent to prepare yourself for the apparent “waste” in possible setbacks . . . even as you determine to be more pro-active in turning your dreams into reality.
To conclude with one of the most famous—though hyperbolic—quotes on (apparent) failure, here's what Thomas Edison had to say after his many unsuccessful attempts to invent the lightbulb: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
NOTE 1: Closely related to this piece is a set of posts I wrote earlier called “Mastering Failure and Rejection” (click here for Parts 1, 2, & 3)—as well as “Anxiety and Self-Doubt: Perfect Recipe for Underachievement.”
NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindly consider forwarding them its link.
NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.